Monday, June 15, 2009

Science's Claim to Truth

Here's a common trope: science is not warranted in claiming that its deliverances are true. Science doesn't "get at" the truth; rather, it "gets at" what the evidence most supports. So scientists shouldn't claim that their theories are true; rather, they should claim that their theories are what the evidence most supports.

I see this on blogs now and again (I got on someone's case just the other day for saying it), and I think here's a place where a little simple philosophy can help the non-philosopher out.

1. First objection. If anyone's warranted in asserting certain matters of empirical fact, such as that chiropractic is bogus, scientists are. Some people are warranted in asserting such matters; therefore, scientists are. Anyone warranted in asserting that p is warranted in asserting that "p" is true, because "p" is true when and only when p. Therefore, scientists are warranted in asserting, for example, that it is true that chiropractic is bogus.

2. Second objection. To be warranted in asserting that p, one must know that p. This is why it is infelicitous to say "p, but I don't know whether p" (for example: "it's raining, but I don't know whether it is or not"). So if a scientist is ever warranted in asserting anything, she must know it. But scientists are sometimes warranted in asserting things; therefore scientists sometimes know things. But knowledge is factive: if S knows p, then "p" is true. So to be warranted in asserting something, it must be true; provided scientists know this (and if they didn't before, now they do), they may infer from the fact that their assertions are warranted that what they say is true.

3. Third objection. A standard scientific reasoning pattern is abduction. Thus, we argue from the correlation between a rise in man-made greenhouse gasses and a rise in global temperatures, to the best explanation: the conclusion that humans are causing global warming. But on equally good footing is the inference from "the evidence supports p" to "'p' is true"-- for what better explanation could there be of the evidence supporting p, than "p"s truth?

So there it is, blogospheric soldiers of science: lay your claims to truth.

1 comment:

  1. You say:

    "Anyone warranted in asserting that p is warranted in asserting that 'p' is true, because 'p' is true when and only when p."

    Not to defend your opponents, but this seems problematic. A monolingual German speaker may be warranted in asserting that snow is white, but not that the sentence 'Snow is white' is true. The monolingual German speaker doesn't even know that 'Snow is white' is a sentence. Perhaps scientists are in a similar position. A biologist's theory may be restricted to the domain of life forms. It's the job of the semanticists to figure out what's true, or even whether 'true' should occur in our final semantic theory.

    Perhaps, you mean "'p'" to designate something like a proposition. If the German speaker is warranted in asserting that snow is white, then perhaps he is warranted in asserting that the proposition that snow is white is true. This is possible, but seems to run into a similar problem. It may be the case that the biologist's theory just doesn't range over that type of abstract object (maybe the biologist wants to make do with just sets). It may be up to the psychologist, or the logician, to figure out whether we need proposition.

    Perhaps the whole issue of truth can be bypassed though. You represent your opponent as holding that the biologist can only report that there theories are what the evidence supports. But that doesn't seem right. Surely a biologist can report on WHETHER deforestation causes depopulation, not just on whether the evidence supports this claim. Is this not enough for your purposes?

    Best,
    Bryan

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